I have been thinking about some of the themes in C.S. Lewis’s writings: heaven, hell, joy, pleasure, and light, among many others.
The first command of God, in the very beginning, was “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3), and light appeared and was given a name (day). It is obvious that God did not need light to see what he was doing; however, we need light to see what he has done. Jesus became light to the world so that we could see (apprehend) God. In a metaphorical sense, Christians are like light for the whole world (Matthew 5:14). In fact, Christians are like a city of light that is on a hill and cannot be hidden.
During the war there were “blackouts” and curtains were put on all the windows of houses so that the enemy could not see any light that could be a target. The claim was that an enemy pilot could see even the tiniest light on the ground, even a match if someone lit one.
Charlie W. Starr has written a book (2012, Light: C.S. Lewis’s first and final short story, Winged Lion Press), chronicling how the theme of light was important in Lewis’s writings. Lewis’s work that Starr refers to was reportedly an unknown manuscript that surfaced in 1985, but seems to be a version of “The man born blind”, published in 1977 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (in The dark tower & other stories, edited by Walter Hooper).
The story concerns a man (Robin) who was born blind and, throughout his life, has heard references to “light”. After an operation, his sight was restored and he continued in earnest a quest for the substance called light, but it was illusory, beyond his understanding, and the search resulted in his untimely death. In his book, Starr compares the history of the versions of the story in forensic detail.
When we think of light we probably think of the sun and, as Lewis said (1947, Miracles) “We believe that the sun is in the sky at midday in summer not because we can clearly see the sun (in fact, we cannot) but because we can see everything else” (133). Or, as he has said elsewhere, “I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun has risen—not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else” and “We cannot see light, though by light we see things” (1960, The Four Loves, Harcourt, Brace and World, p.175).
That is why we read this bold proclamation in 2 John 1:5-7: Here, then, is the message which we heard from him, and now proclaim to you: GOD IS LIGHT and no shadow of darkness can exist in him. Consequently, if we were to say that we enjoyed fellowship with him and still went on living in darkness, we should be both telling and living a lie. But if we really are living in the same light in which he eternally exists, then we have true fellowship with each other, and the blood which his Son shed for us keeps us clean from all sin. (J.B. Phillips New Testament)
John the Baptist “was a lamp that burned and gave light, and you chose for a time to enjoy his light (John 5:35, NIV). But, of course, the light that John witnessed about was Jesus. And we desperately need him because we “were once darkness, but now [we] are light in the Lord. Live as children of light 9 (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) 10 and find out what pleases the Lord. 11 Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. 12 It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. 13 But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light. (Ephesians 5:8-13).
Salwa Khoddam has a section in his book (2011, Memory, metaphor, and metamorphoses in The Chronicles of Narnia, Winged Lion Press) called “Light and sun iconography”. In it we read, first of all, that Lewis defines iconography “as rational images filled with ancient wisdom and used in ‘divine compositions’” (44). Lewis makes it clear that the icon is not an idol and he views light as a symbol of the spirit and in Christianity as an image of God (45). And, because God is light, it is natural that light can be a symbol for him. And, of course, in the Gospel of John (8:12), Jesus refers to himself as the light of the world. And in Revelation 21:23 we read that the heavenly city “does not need the sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp”. And further, God said “Let light shine out of darkness [and] made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.”
Many of Lewis’s books use light and sun as images associated with God and heaven. Although we cannot see light (as Robin tried in “The man born blind”), we need light to see everything. As we are reminded by Khoddam, “Lewis follows a long tradition that views light as a symbol of the spirit…and, in the case Christianity, an image of Christ or God” (45). Further, “Lewis’s mythopoeic Christian imagination uses the ancient primitive content of light (as good) vs. darkness (as evil) not only as a tool for drama and suspense, but to endow the landscape of Narnia with holiness and mystery” (48).
We see this landscape clearly in Revelation 21:23 (quoted above) with our own hope: “I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles…”
My wife and I worked in Papua New Guinea for many years and the language we studied and learned to speak is called Kewa. In Kewa the verb ada literally means ‘to see” something, but it is used metaphorically to indicate that someone understands, much like we would say in English, “I see what you mean”. The word for light in Kewa is paa and when the sun shines there is “light”, just as when it is directly over head (paa-lu ) there is “light extending everywhere”. We see by that light and in translating the NT into Kewa, the glory of God is literally “God’s great (strong) and good light”.
Some very helpful thoughts on the sun and light also come from the article by Lewis called “Meditations in a toolshed” (1985, C.S. Lewis: First and second things, Fount Paperbacks, pp. 50-54). Lewis was looking at a crack at the top of the door in his toolshed, through which a beam of sunlight was streaming. In the beam were specks of dust flowing but, inside the shed everything else was black. However, as he looked along the beam he could see outside where there were branches of a tree, and beyond that the sky for millions of miles. He contrasted looking at the beam with looking along the beam—two different views and experiences. One view is observational, the other participatory and the dichotomy is very similar to Pike’s notion of etic and emic (1982, Linguistic concepts: An introduction to tagmemics, University of Nebraska Press). The former view is “a preliminary, generalized (etic) view” (73) while the emic is the insider’s cultural viewpoint. We need both viewpoints for as Lewis says “you can step outside one experience only by stepping inside another” (54).
Light is also commonly associated with truth and we can talk of “shedding some light upon” a particular topic or revealing its “true nature”. In the process we become “enlightened”. We see the association of light and truth in Ephesians 5:9: “for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth” and in 1 John 2:8: “Yet I am writing you a new command; its truth is seen in him and in you, because the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining.”
Throughout Lewis’s writings light is also associated with truth and beauty. Markos reminds us in his book (2010, Restoring beauty: The good, the true, and the beautiful in the writings of C.S. Lewis, Biblica Publishing) that “Beauty (like light, like truth, like goodness) reveals what is hidden…And when this happens, we have two options: conform ourselves to the beauty or stand in eternal opposition to it” (49). Light illuminates something, it even makes it easier to bear, so can contrast it with something that is “heavy”. The joy of light can be noted in Proverbs 15:30: “Light in a messenger’s eyes brings joy to the heart, and good news gives health to the bones.
Alister E. McGrath (2014, The intellectual world of C.S. Lewis, John Wiley & Sons) writes of “The privileging of vision: Lewis’s metaphors of light, sun, and sight”. Lewis draws on “the language of sight and vision for its metaphors of truth and meaning” (84). Such a view has a long tradition of what McGrath calls “ocular images” whereby the image of “seeing” focuses on “how the human observer perceives things” (87). By using the “imaginative enhancement of vision” Lewis is able to draw us into something that is more wonderful (88). In addition, Lewis uses the analogy of the sun as a source for our illumination.
Many authors have tried to shed light on C.S. Lewis, that is, to examine his writings for things that will help us know him better. There are bibliographies, encyclopedias, handbooks, companions and guides, anthologies, and examinations of Lewis’s philosophy, religion, and almost any other topic that he mentioned. All of these studies tell us something about Lewis but his own words reveal what was really most important to him: joy, heaven, hell, phantasies, books, and good companions and conversation. His letters tell us more about himself than the books that are written about him.
Lewis’s autobiography (1955, Surprised by joy: The shape of my early life, Harcourt, Brace and Company) has a chapter called “Light and Shade”, but it is related to his life at college and his accumulation of wisdom and knowledge, along with cynicism and boredom. The real spiritual light was passed on to him by friends like Dyson and Tolkien and in chapter seven he describes their influence (“Checkmate”, chapter XIV) Lewis describes that “all my writings and watchings for Joy, all my vain hopes to find some mental content on which I could…say, “This is it,’ had been a futile attempt to contemplate the enjoyed” (219). Lewis was moving toward being a Christian, he was beginning to see the light. But “Really, a young Atheist cannot guard his faith too carefully. Dangers lie in wait for him on every side” (226).
Lewis soon learned that “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17).